In the past few days global media has been filled with cartoons of Vladimir Putin depicted as a modern day Adolph Hitler. Not only are such images unnecessarily provocative, they completely misrepresent the politics behind the events unfolding in the Crimea. I would suggest that caricatures of the President of Russia in the guise of the sixth-century “Roman” emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565) would be far more apt. Most modern historians are rightly cautious when comparing modern societies to ancient ones. Yet interesting parallels can be made between Justinian’s sixth-century “reconquest” of the lost provinces of the Western Roman Empire, with Putin’s opportunistic move into the Crimea this week.
The primary issue in both cases seems to be just who has the true claim to their state’s identity. Both the governments in Moscow and Kiev want to own the past. The idea of a Russia founded by the ninth-century Scandinavian Rus in the lands surrounding Kiev is undisputed. Politicians in Kiev and Moscow have made legitimate claims to this history. Such a notion is similar to the belief on the part of many sixth-century citizens of Rome and Constantinople that the Roman Empire had been founded 1200 years earlier along the banks of the Tiber. However, just who owned this legacy—East or West—remained an area of contention.
The dispute lies in the ownership of this mythic history. So too do the modern cities of Kiev or Moscow continue an ancient battle for pre-eminence as the “true” heirs to this ancient civilization. A similar debate captivated the intellectuals and politicians in the Later Roman Empire. The eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople that Justinian ruled from Constantinople had been a comparatively recent invention. The emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 22 May 337) had founded the city and moved the capital of the Empire to Constantinople from Rome in 330. Over the next century and a half we see in the literary record an on-going debate concerning the primacy of old Rome and the new Rome, Constantinople. By the fifth century one sees the development of what Fergus Millar has described recently as increasingly independent “twin regimes” in the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire.
Famously, this argument became mostly moot when the last Western emperor Romulus Augustus was overthrown in 476. Under the inept rule of the last Western Roman emperors, non-Roman generals became the true power behind the throne. In 476, a group of rebellious soldiers proclaimed one of these strongmen, Odoacer, king. Odoacer deposed the Western Roman emperor, Romulus. The new king dispatched a delegation to the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno, (ruled 474-5, 476-91), informing the emperor that there was no longer the need for a separate emperor in the West. Zeno, who himself was a former Isaurian chieftain (a pastoralist people who had raided throughout the Empire’s Cappadocian and Syrian Provinces) and who had taken control of the Empire after the death of Leo I had little choice in the matter. He recognized Odoacer’s right to rule, and appointed him to the rank of patricius.
Zeno, had problems of his own only recently reclaiming his throne from a “usurper” Basiliskos” in the prior year. Yet Zeno and his backers were only biding their time to retake Italy. When he was more firmly established in power, emperor Zeno convinced Theoderic the Amal to gather his forces in Thrace and the Balkans and march into Italy to eliminate Odoacer. After a fierce struggle, Theoderic slew Odoacer and took control of Italy. Theoderic’s relationship with the Eastern Roman Empire became strained. Though technically subservient to the emperor, he was viewed as a usurper by many Romans in the East.
Yet, as with the Vandals in North Africa, it would be a mistake to see the triumph of the “barbarians” in Italy as the end of the Western Roman Empire. The barbarians of the late fifth century CE were far different from the fur-clad wild marauders portrayed in Classical literature. On the contrary, many Germanic leaders had adapted themselves to Roman society and rapidly became indistinguishable from their civilian Roman neighbours. They dressed in contemporary Roman fashions and possessed magnificent villas decorated with the latest mosaic floors and furnishings. Theoderic himself was attracted to Roman culture. Indeed, during his ten years as a hostage in Constantinople (461-71) he had received a Roman education. Subsequently, when Theoderic seized power in Italy, he did not destroy Rome, but cooperated with the Roman officials and attempted to integrate his people into Italian society. As Jonathan Arnold (Theoderic and the Imperial Restoration) has recently shown, Theoderic and his Goths were often portrayed by the Italo-Romans as new and “true” Romans. These images stood in stark contrast to their frequent presentation of the Eastern Romans as non-martial and largely effeminate Greeks.
Roman decline continued in the sixth century. The military defeats in the West, as well as the renewed Persian threat to the East, created a sense of anxiety amongst the populace. Increasingly, many Eastern Romans, rich and poor, began to search for a “Roman” ruler to lead them back to glory. They got their wish when Justinian succeeded to the throne. Justinian believed that the loss of the Western Empire resulted from the fifth-century emperors’ incompetent rule and it was his duty to reunite the lost Provinces and restore order to the Empire. Sound familiar?
Justinian’s family came from the provincial Balkan town of Nis, and like Zeno, he had journeyed to Constantinople in the search for a position in the military. Justinian recognized that his humble origins meant that he had a tenuous hold on power. Accordingly, he took several steps to consolidate his authority. Under the guise of a Classical renewal, he gradually increased the authority of the emperor, and curtailed the aristocracy’s power. He claimed for the first time that the emperor represented the nomos empsychos (the living law). In the Digest, he codified Roman law and refused to allow lawyers to change these laws. It became the emperor’s duty to “resolve ambiguous juridical decisions.”
It is with Justinian that Classical Rome fades away and a recognizable early Medieval Christian State takes its place. Although Justinian played upon many Romans’ hunger for the return of the glorious Roman past, his centralization, strict regimentation, and “Classical Roman renewal” were based on Christian concepts. Justinian perceived himself as the head of the Church and State, and he ruled as both a religious and a secular leader. No other emperor either before or after had such control over the Church. It would be a mistake to see Justinian acting out these reforms purely from political necessity. What separated Justinian from many of his predecessors was his devotion to Orthodox Christianity and his abhorrence of heresy. Like the emperor Constantine, Justinian seems to have honestly believed that he served as God’s vehicle in the secular world. Justinian thought of himself as a man who, along with his wife, the empress Theodora, served as God’s representative on earth. During the pagan era, the divinity of an emperor like Augustus isolated him from both his wife Livia and the general populace. Justinian’s role as mediator between heaven and earth brought him closer to the people and to his wife. Justinian assumed that for the good of the Empire, it was his duty to impose religious and legal conformity on his subjects. Before Justinian’s ascension, pagans had been allowed to serve in the bureaucracy as long as they kept their beliefs to themselves. Justinian, however, felt compelled to stamp out the last vestiges of the old faith. In 528, he commanded that all pagans had three months to be baptized. The next year he forbade the teaching of philosophy at the Academy in Athens. Pagan professors disillusioned with the Christianization of the Empire fled to the more “enlightened” court of the Persian king Chosroes.
Justinian’s autocratic rule and his humble background guaranteed that there would be strong opposition to his rule among the populace, especially the nobility, many of whom remembered the reign of the emperor Anastasios I (ruled 491-518 CE) as an era of relative religious freedom and prosperity. In January of 532, the anti-Justinian faction felt strong enough to make its move. A crowd of people went to the home of Anastasios’ nephew, Probus, in an attempt to name him emperor. Probus, perhaps purposely, was not there and the group burned down his house in frustration. In an attempt to appease the opposition, Justinian removed two unpopular officials from office. The emperor’s rivals, however, took this gesture as a sign of weakness and awaited the proper opportunity to make their move. Their chance arrived when Justinian attended a race at the Hippodrome and tried to placate the angry masses by giving a conciliatory speech. Both the Blues and the Greens, sporting factions that usually were bitter rivals, shouted down the emperor, and an uprising called the Nika revolt ensued. According to Procopius, the emperor attempted to abandon the capital, but Theodora stiffened the emperor’s resolve, and Justinian sent out his general Belisarius to punish the rebels. The Chronicon Paschale, an early seventh-century account, described Belisarius’ ruthless counterattack, “The people remained mobbing outside the palace. And when this was known, the patrician Belisarius, the magister militum, came out with a multitude of Goths and cut down many [rioters] until evening.” Justinian never forgot the lesson of his near overthrow. Perhaps he knew that if he wanted to survive he could never again show any signs of weakness or compromise.
Justinian’s actions cemented his power in Constantinople, and allowed him to conduct his campaigns to restore the lost Provinces of the Western empire. However, before Justinian could turn his forces to the West, he needed to secure his Northern and Eastern borders. Even before the Nika revolt, Byzantine armies had attained several important victories in these regions. In 530, for the first time in several years, the Byzantine army gained several victories over Persian forces in Armenia and Mesopotamia. The Empire gained further successes in the Balkans by defeating raiding Slavic and Bulgar forces. That same year, the Vandals deposed and imprisoned their king Hilderic. The Vandals replaced Hilderic with his fiery nephew and heir, Gelimer. Although this overthrow disturbed Justinian, for the time being he could only warn Gelimer “not to exchange the title of king for the title of tyrant.” The next year, the Persians and the Eastern Romans fought to a standstill in the East. However, the Persian emperor Cabades died in 531, and the new emperor, Chosroes, who needed time to consolidate his own power, readily agreed the next year to a five-year truce with the Eastern Romans. With both the dangerous Balkan and Persian frontier secured, Justinian eagerly turned his eyes to the West.
Justinian used both political and religious reasons to justify his attack on the Vandals. In 533, claiming that he was protecting orthodox Christians from the dangers of an Arian usurper, the emperor sent Belisarius and his small army of about 18,000 men to North Africa. The landing caught the Vandals off guard. Although Gelimer attempted to block Belisarius’ march on Carthage, the Eastern Roman army soundly defeated him. He fled, leaving his forces in disarray. Belisarius captured the city, and that same year he destroyed the remnants of the Vandal army at the battle of Tricamerum. Although Gelimer escaped once more, in 534, he finally surrendered to Belisarius. Despite the seeming ease of the Byzantine victory over the Vandals, however, it would it take another fifteen years to stamp out the stubborn resistance of the local Berber tribes.
The defeat of the Vandals gave Justinian the confidence to retake Italy from the Goths. The emperor secretly negotiated with Theoderic’s daughter, Amalasuntha, (regent to her son, king Atalaric, ruled 526-534 CE), to restore Italy to Roman rule. However, when Atalaric died in 534, political considerations forced Amalasuntha to make her cousin Theodatus (ruled 534-536 CE) co-ruler. Theodatus suspected Amalasuntha’s “treason,” and he attempted to ingratiate himself with the queen’s enemies by imprisoning and then murdering her in 535.
Once again, Justinian used an “unlawful” usurpation of power by a barbarian king as a pretext for Byzantine intervention. Soon after Amalasuntha’s death, he invaded Italy and claimed the Ostrogothic kingdom for himself. Belisarius seized Sicily in 535. Exasperated with Theodatus’ inept leadership, in 536 the Ostrogoths killed him, replacing him with the general Vitigis (ruled 536-540 CE). Vitigis fared little better than Theodatus. His attempts to besiege Belisarius in Rome from 536 to 537 failed, and in 540, he surrendered Ravenna to Belisarius. Despite being sent to Constantinople in chains, Vitigis was allowed an honorable retirement in Constantinople.
Victory seemed to be within Justinian’s grasp. Yet in 540 things took a turn for the worse. Justinian’s campaigns in North Africa and Italy had severely stretched the limits of the Eastern Romans’ military power. In the same year, Chosroes, fearing Justinian’s growing power, violated the “endless peace.” Persian troops quickly overwhelmed the sparsely defended cities of Syria. Desperate to defeat the Persians, Justinian recalled Belisarius from Italy. While Belisarius had mixed success in his campaigns against the Persians, Justinian managed to sign another truce with Chosroes by agreeing to pay more tribute. Although the treaty with the Persians allowed Justinian to concentrate once more on his reconquest of Italy, ultimately, the payments reduced Byzantium’s power in the East, allowing the Persians to become the dominant power in the region.
The year 540 also marked a turning point in Justinian’s reconquest of Italy. Despite Belisarius’ victories, the Ostrogothic army had refused to submit to Byzantine rule. In 541, the Ostrogothic nobility appointed Totila (ruled 541-552) as king. Totila, a relative of the Visigothic king Theudis (ruled 526-548), revitalized the Gothic army’s fighting spirit. In a series of swift campaigns, he recaptured almost all of Italy. Finally, however, after a long and bitter struggle, the Byzantine general Narses defeated Totila in 552, and by 554, the Eastern Roman army had overwhelmed the remnants of the Ostrogothic forces. Victorious at last in Italy, in 555, Justinian sent an army to Spain, capturing the southeast corner of the Iberian Peninsula.
For contemporaries, it may have looked as though Justinian had succeeded in restoring the Western half of the Roman Empire. In retrospect, however, the “reconquest” was the last gasp of the ancient Roman Empire. The victories in the West had come at a steep price. The vicious wars had devastated Italy, and many Italians began to perceive the Eastern Romans as foreign invaders. The depopulation of Italy also made it increasingly difficult for the Byzantine army to protect Italy from outside invaders, and in 568 the Lombards overran Northern and Central Italy. Although the Eastern Romans managed to maintain a political presence in Italy until the eleventh century, they no longer treated it as if it were their ancient home, but simply as a frontier military Province.
Once again, sound familiar? In a similar manner to how and why the Byzantine Empire was forced through impotence to recognise Theoderic’s Italy, Russia has in the past twenty years outwardly grudgingly accepted Ukrainian independence. But one suspects, that they have been always waiting for the right opportunity to pounce. With a United States of America under Obama not likely to make more than ominous threats, Putin realizes that the perfect combination of the afterglow of a successful Olympics and the political turmoil in Ukraine have presented an unique opportunity. Similar stars aligning for Justinian, led to the idea of the reconquest of North Africa and Italy. Moreover, just as the coup in Vandalic Africa presented Justinian with the opportunity to present himself as the protector of Orthodox Christians, so too do the foolish opening acts of the new Ukrainian government to curtail the rights of “Russians” within Ukraine offer Putin an opportunity to be seen as the mighty protector of Orthodoxy. Justinian sought to present himself as a “true” Roman emperor protecting “true” Romans in recently conquered lands. So too has Putin cast himself as an ideal “new” Russian leader of both church and state.
Putin has skilfully crafted a sense of Russian identity in the post-communist world by adeptly appealing to a sense of nationhood based upon orthodoxy, autocracy and good old Czarist, and indeed Roman Imperial masculine ideals. Many within the west lampoon Putin for his outwardly and somewhat embarrassing attempts to look like a real man, whether this entails hunting without his shirt or taking a hard line on intellectuals and homosexuals. This propaganda, however, is not aimed at us in the West. Another Byzantinist, Peter Frankopan, has recently commented on the ways Putin has copied imperial ideals from the Byzantine Empire: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/peter-frankopan/vladimir-putin-byzantine-emperor_b_3426216.html.
The Russian president and the Byzantine emperor had both begun their careers in the shadow military organizations that protected their respective regimes. As a result of this background, these rulers seem to share a trait of observing caution and depending on detailed and careful planning when they decide to act. They also know how attract the audience’s attention, whilst marginalising their potential rivals. While I do not know how events will unfold, Putin, much like Justinian, will probably play upon any perceived weakness on the part of the Ukrainians or the West and probe for further opportunities to expand his dreams of “reconquest”. Following the policies of Justinian, Putin appears to recognize the importance of appealing to the past to create a state for the future. It is also important to recognise that, just like the sixth-century Italo-Romans, many Ukrainians are probably torn on just where their loyalty should lie. In the end Justinian’s reconquest led for disaster for many Italians. Let us hope the same does not hold true for modern day Ukrainians.